'The most unhelpful myth about Cambridge? That it's unreachable'

Classicist Sarah on applying as a first-generation student

Cambridge classicist Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson is a second year classics student at Fitzwilliam College. Before arriving at Cambridge, she studied at an academy school in Peterborough, and now supports students from similar backgrounds, as a Cambassador at outreach and access events, and as the Cambridge Class Act Campaign’s First Generation Students’ Officer.

If you’re the first in your family to go to university, you might not have people around you who you can ask for advice. You can’t benefit from their experience when it comes to applying, the way other students who already have those networks can. It can also make it harder to find the opportunities that are available quite so easily. But there is support out there!

I’m the First Generation Students’ Officer for the Cambridge SU Class Act Campaign. I grew up on free school meals and I’m the first in my family to go to university. My dad left school at 16 and went straight into a job, so he had a completely different experience to me. For first-generation students there can also sometimes be a bit of a conversational barrier at home, in terms of what your family’s used to. It can be a bigger deal than a lot of people realise. In my family, there was a sense that Oxbridge was unattainable, but also a feeling of ‘Good for you for trying…’

And that’s the most unhelpful myth about Cambridge – the idea that it’s unreachable. Especially among our parents’ generation, who might have grown up when going to university was not the done thing, especially going to Cambridge. If you’ve grown up with Cambridge being this mystical land that no one can get into, actually sitting down and thinking, ‘Right, what are the steps I need to take to get there?’ seems likes some kind of mythological expedition. So making the most of the University and College websites, reaching out to admissions tutors, and educational charities like the Sutton Trust, is crucial. You have to make sure you understand what the steps are and then just go for it.

It’s too easy to ‘self-deselect’. I did well in my GCSEs, and in the sixth form my teacher asked whether applying to Oxbridge was something I would consider. Straight away I said ‘no’, because I didn’t want to be rejected, basically. I didn’t want to go through so much effort, get my application and my personal statement in so much earlier, make my mind up earlier, just to hear: ‘No, sorry we don’t want you.’ Then in January of Year 12, I decided that the only way I would ensure not getting in was by not applying. Self-deselection is the biggest barrier for a huge amount of people. Just hearing someone say ‘give it a go’ is important, so that’s what I would say to anyone thinking about applying!

My A-level choices were a bit of a wildcard - classical civilisation, religious studies and biology. It’s a bit of a spread! My policy was to choose A-level subjects I enjoyed - I loved doing biology, but if you want to do science at university, you need to have studied sciences! In a way, I fell into classical civilisation. My school didn’t offer Latin at A-level, but I had done it at GCSE (I was going to do German instead, but we had a Latin taster talk and someone said ‘There’s Latin in Harry Potter’, and I thought ‘Ah, that sounds interesting!’) So, I took A-level classical civilisation because it lined up with the rest of my timetable; I chose it because I thought it would be interesting, and then I fell in love with it.

As a sixth former, I went to a lecture and was captivated by The Frogs. It’s a comedy from ancient Greece, and when I saw it, I knew classics was what I wanted to do. It’s a bit of a strange one about how all the tragic playwrights have died, and Dionysus has decided the city is going to ruin because of it. There’s a lot of contemporary political commentary in there, and a lot about declining morals. In my personal statement, I compared it to ‘Making America Great Again’, and that idea of the ‘good old days’.

I did consider applying to study politics at university, but I chose classics because it meant I could study politics within a more controlled environment. I love politics, but I didn’t want to study Brexit and current political issues. With classics, I could look at the same themes that influence us today, but in a way that isn’t ever changing and affecting people’s lives on a daily basis.

'There is a real community in your college - you get this feeling like you’re coming home at the end of the day, which I really appreciate.'

Cambridge classicist Sarah Anderson with friends

The most valuable things I did - in terms of my application - were attending open days and taking part in the summer schools on offer. You just have to find those opportunities and make the most of them. Getting a chance to experience what university might be like was unbelievably helpful - and realising that I could have a fun time there, and it wouldn’t just be work, work, work, was reassuring. But of course there were moments when I had concerns about fitting in. I was at a classics open day and I remember thinking ‘How will I ever compete with people on my course who have been learning languages since they were seven?’ Fortunately, my College is a very welcoming environment, and the lecturers who were talking at the open day made the subject so interesting that I still felt confident in applying. The summer school I attended was like a normal week at university - so you have an essay to write, lectures to attend and a supervision at the end of it. Things like that also gave me the confidence that Oxbridge is was somewhere I could fit in. It’s also a great experience to be able to talk about in your personal statement, when you apply.

I also entered an essay completion being run by Fitzwilliam College. I was highly commended and was invited to go and have a look around, which was really lovely. I spent time in the gardens, which at Fitzwilliam are really beautiful, and I also met my future Director of Studies and was able to ask questions about applying. The whole experience was very encouraging, and that’s why I eventually decided to apply to study at Fitzwilliam.

Also, Fitzwilliam has ovens! It means you can cook for yourself, and gives you the choice of not eating in halls. Which helps, because you can have a bit more control over what you eat, and a bit more control over your budget. There is a real community in your College. And, because Fitzwilliam is a little further out of the centre in Cambridge, you get this feeling like you’re coming home at the end of the day, which I really appreciate. There’s a feeling that this is a space for living rather than just a space for academia. Having supervisions with others at your College is also a nice experience. But you can also have them with other students from other colleges; I’ve made some really good friendships after meeting random people in my supervisions!

At school, one of my teachers helped me prepare for my Cambridge interview, but I don’t think any of the staff had specific experience of applying to Cambridge. As mentors, the advice we always give prospective students who don’t have someone with experience of Cambridge, is that a chat with a friend about your subject, about your personal statement, can be just as valuable – a friend, a teacher, a parent. Just seeing what you like talking about, from what you’ve written about or from what you’ve read.

'There’s a lot of self-discipline needed to make sure you’re working when you need to, but you need to be disciplined about taking a break too.'

Cambridge classicist Sarah Anderson with friends

The amount of information about the Cambridge Bursary on the University website was very reassuring. Depending on your circumstances, you can get up to £3,500 a year (or more if you are a care leaver, estranged, or have been eligible for free school meals). Compared to the financial support being offered by some universities, it was very generous - especially because you don’t have to pay it back, because the scary thing about student finance for most people is not getting the money, it’s the worry about how you’re going to repay it.

On the day of my interview, I tried to make it as fun as possible. It’s obviously a stressful time, but I bought myself cake and tried to chat to people I met about things that weren’t the interview. But actually, the interview itself was fine; everyone was very nice and were happy to let me take my time answering their questions.

As a mentor, I get a lot of questions from prospective students about independent living, and how you make friends at Cambridge. In my case, I was able to go to a classics summer school run by the Faculty, so I knew a lot of people from different colleges and had a really good friendship group before we even started term. But for others, making the most of Freshers’ week is a good idea, when you don’t have work to be doing. At the same time, if you don’t meet many people in Freshers’ week it’s not a big deal. Most of the people I’m closest with now I didn’t meet until halfway through my first year. There’s a lot of self-discipline needed to make sure you’re working when you need to, but you need to be disciplined about taking a break too. I sing in the chapel choir twice a week, which is really nice because it means I can’t think about work for those two hours!

I’d eventually like to work in museums and curation. It’s obviously a career to which classics is directly applicable, but classics gives you so many skills that you can take in lots of different directions and into many fields. I chose it because it’s something I enjoy, with the rationale that if I enjoy what I study then I’ll probably do better in it and come out with a stronger belief in myself at the end of my degree.

Find out more information on applying, and on the upcoming Cambridge Open Days.

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